Professional athletes live their lives in the open and not just on the field. For star athletes, any scandal that tarnishes their brand can have significant financial and reputational impact - from being cut from the team and banned from play to losing endorsements and the love of their fans.
The recent events with tennis pro Maria Sharapova and her two-year suspension for doping is just the latest example of an athlete facing a career-ending scandal. Can Sharapova bounce back from this? How can athletes recover from very public missteps?
How Can Players Stage A Comeback?
In order to rebound from a scandal, athletes need to be strategic in winning back fans and rebuilding their reputation. Those who are more successful at overcoming scandal tend to commit themselves to three critical steps.
1. Elite Performance - The Best Athlete
The most effective way to overcome a scandal and career setback is to be successful on the field. The sad reality is that when athletes perform at high levels, fans and team executives tend to overlook criminal behavior and past transgressions.
Former Baltimore Ravens Ray Lewis and former Los Angeles Lakers Kobe Bryant are examples of players who have regained the public's love as after being accused of violent crimes. Many expect that they will become Hall of Famers. Today, they are better remembered for their professional success as star athletes with strong public images.
At the end of the day, results speak for themselves. If you can win games, you can win fans. It is that simple.
2. Fall on the Sword - Own Your Mistakes
In order to move on, athletes have to fall on the sword in a public "mea culpa" moment. The only way to earn the public's trust and forgiveness is to publicly admit fault and own up to mistakes. Admitting you are wrong could help you transition back into competition and the fans' good graces. You have to do this quickly and early.
Tiger Woods' favorability rating dropped to 34% by the time he apologized - opposed to 60% immediately after the scandal. Arguably, Tiger Woods' failure to apologize for his extramarital affairs further hurt his reputation. By waiting weeks to publicly apologize, he may have permanently hurt his image.
In contrast, public admissions immediately after scandals demonstrate an athlete's intentto show remorse and seek forgiveness. CNN reports that Maria Sharapova maintained public favorability by owning up to her mistake, apologizing for it, and explaining herself. As a result, she is liked by more than 84% of US consumers following the scandal, compared to 88% in the previous month before the scandal.
3. If You Build It, They Will Come - Build Back Your Brand Value
If the public thinks you are a jerk, then you have to change this perception. Athletes should start by doing good deeds to build back their brand. This may seem contrived, but being a positive contributor to society can help chip away at the public's outrage.
For example, Ray Lewis established the Ray Lewis Family Foundation to provide personal and economic assistance to disadvantaged youth. He also pledged support to several other causes and philanthropies. This helped win back the support of his fans, particularly those around the Maryland area.
Working with foundations and charities is a start. So is staying out of trouble. If athletes start generating more positive than negative press, then they might be able to hold onto endorsements, win fans, and keep their jobs.
Point of No Return
Some mistakes are just unforgivable and there is no coming back from scandal. Former New England Patriot's tight end, Aaron Hernandez, may never walk as a free man again, let alone play professional football after being convicted of murder. Arguably, Lance Armstrong may remain persona non grata for many years to come. Not only did he lose his cycling titles, but he also had to step down from his own Livestrong Foundation.
When regaining the public's trust is no longer a viable option, the best solution may be to focus on creating the best life possible outside of the limelight. Some lessons are learned the hard way, and rightly so.
In order to have career longevity and professional success beyond the game, athletes need to think of the big picture. Their brand value and public image can make or break their careers and bank accounts. They need to recognize what happens off the field will impact them - either negatively or positively.
Having a 360-degree view of their brand value and being surrounded by trustworthy advisors and friends is critical - helping them make good choices and avoid pitfalls. You cannot hang out with chickens and expect to soar like an eagle. Having poor judgment and making bad decisions can be a career killer. However, when athletes stumble, they will need a plan, strategy, and trusted advisors to help them recover and get back on track.
The Azara Group (TAG) is a consulting firm that promotes the development of leaders in an increasingly competitive and diverse marketplace - providing strategy consulting services and leadership training services to advance professional and life success. TAG leverages expertise in career strategy, diversity, negotiation skills, and business acumen to provide strategic advice and consulting services to help people and organizations get what they want, achieve their goals, and advance their business and career objectives. TAG also helps companies better attract, retain, and promote diverse talent, and develop robust diversity platforms and strategies to create a more inclusive workplace.
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